Hillary Clinton already wears the mantle of presumptive nominee for president. She's an accomplished lawyer, a member of Walmart's board of directors, a close adviser to her husband when he was president, a two-term senator from New York, and secretary of state. And yet, she is a horrible politician.
So far, she has been able to sew up lots of Democratic money and support, and build an organization without actually beginning her campaign. She hasn't even decided on running, but maintains the repose of someone awaiting her party's coronation. That is a wise strategy.
Consider that Clinton has run in three elections. Her two wins in New York are not all that impressive, really. Instead of facing the powerful and well-funded Rudy Giuliani in 2000, who withdrew for health reasons, she was up against Representative Rick Lazio. Lazio only entered the race five months before it ended. And in her re-election in 2006, the New York GOP let a Yonkers mayor, John Spencer, be the sacrificial lamb. It is questionable whether many of the 31 percent of voters who went for him even knew his name before entering the voting booth. The only memorable moment from either race was when she accused Lazio of bullying after he approached her on a debate stage.
And of course she lost the only electoral race where she faced a credible opponent. In the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination she blew a massive early lead. One of the only reasons she did not get completely pasted by Barack Obama was his horrible off-the-record flub about rural voters "clinging to their guns and religion." Clinton immediately invented a strategy later used by the Tea Party and Glenn Beck of trying to tar Obama as an alien and radical. In their April 16 debate in Pennsylvania, she tried to highlight Obama's "relationship with Reverend Farrakhan" and portray him as a supporter of Hamas. This strategy failed utterly.
Her bad instinct in that campaign, one that energized his base and the media against her, is emblematic of a deeper problem. Clinton's vanity and self-regard lead her to consistently portray herself, falsely, as uniquely embattled. She may even see herself this way. It has worked well for her exactly twice. The first was the Lazio bullying incident. And the second was when she teared up on the way to victory in New Hampshire.
But the rest of the time it just leads her to tell embarrassing tall tales about herself or her opponents. She claimed to have landed under "sniper fire" in Bosnia in 1996, ducking rounds between airplane and car, when in fact she was walking and chatting with comedian Sinbad. On her book tour she claimed to have been "dead broke" after leaving the White House, when she was living in a beautiful Chappaqua estate, and snapping up other nice pieces of real estate.
She uses this strategy whenever she feels political pressure. When her husband, the president, used a young White House intern for sexual gratification, Hillary blamed "a vast right-wing conspiracy" aimed at them. When she was pressed at hearings about the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, she huffed and showed signs of breaking down: "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
And her sense of entitlement can lead to mistakes of arrogance. During her first run for Senate, and while she was under criticism for taking some money from Muslim groups, her campaign "mistakenly" recorded a donation from the American Muslim Council as from the "American Museum Council," before returning the $1,000 check after it became a controversy.
The Clintons' story last year was that she has learned from her mistakes. And maybe, after her gaffe-strewn book launch, she'll learn from them again. If she manages to keep challengers away in the Democratic primary, she'll also receive some cover for mistakes merely from the command she'll have of partisan energies by the time she faces an opponent. That'll help.
Clinton may have been masterly at State. But she's proven unable to master the hustings. In a fair fight with a Republican, feigned or real weakness will not prove to be a strength. Look at Lyndon Johnson's pained reaction after Nixon's Manila questions. Or George H.W. Bush's exasperation at having two rivals. Or Romney's pained expression when Candy Crowley backed up President Obama during the debate. In presidential politics, theres no victory in being a victim.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- The amazing resurrection of Mitt Romney
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The dangers of our passionless American life
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- 4 strategies for organizing your money, based on your personality
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The essential techniques that every home cook should know
- The real reason conservatives should be outraged that police killed a white youth
- Girls on Film: Belle is one of the most groundbreaking, joyous movies of the summer
Subscribe to the Week